Opera is Facebook's best browser play

Reports peg No. 5 browser maker as takeover target

Facebook may acquire Norwegian browser maker Opera Software, developer of the Opera and Opera Mini browsers for desktops and mobile phones, according to a report.

The purchase of Opera would give Facebook a way to quickly create a dedicated browser customized for the social networking giant and its estimated 900 million active monthly users.

It would also put Facebook in the middle of a browser battle with Microsoft (Internet Explorer), Mozilla (Firefox), Google (Chrome) and Apple (Safari). Some of those companies -- like Microsoft -- have partnered with Facebook, while others -- such as Google -- compete in the social networking space.

U.K.-based technology website Pocket-lint first reported Friday that Facebook "is looking to buy Opera Software," citing an unnamed source it described only as "trusted." Other sites, including The Next Web, claimed that while their sources could not verify Facebook's interest, they did say Opera's management has been talking to potential suitors.

Both Opera and Facebook declined to comment on Pocket-lint's report.

Opera is really the only top-five browser that Facebook, or anyone for that matter, could conceivably acquire.

Three of the five are locked into operating systems: Internet Explorer, with Windows; Chrome, with ChromeOS; and Safari, with OS X and iOS.

And Firefox, while not associated with an OS maker, is backed by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, which has used the "open Web" mantra since its inception. It's hard to believe that Mozilla would sell Firefox to Facebook, a company that has reaped billions from a self-contained ecosystem.

That leaves only Opera.

But while Opera is the one viable deal Facebook could make, the Norwegian browser comes with its own baggage: It's the fifth browser, and a distant fifth at that, in a five-browser market.

Last month, Opera accounted for just 1.6% of the world's in-use browsers, according to data from metrics company Net Applications. Opera has never cracked the 3% mark, never been in anything but fifth place on the desktop. Even No. 4 Safari has three times Opera's usage share.

And on mobile, the numbers are little better.

Even though Opera claims about 210 million Opera Mini users worldwide, Net Applications pegged the browser's share of mobile at 12% for April, just half what it was a year earlier. Most of Opera Mini's losses have gone to Apple's Safari, the default browser on the iPhone and iPad, whose owners have a voracious appetite for the Web.

(Net Applications' Irish rival, StatCounter, showed Opera with a 21.5% share in April, with Safari at 23.7%.)

That's not to say that a Facebook-owned Opera and Opera Mini wouldn't change those numbers: In the U.S., Facebook collects about one-in-every-five page views. If Facebook branded Opera and Opera Mini with its own nameplate and pitched them to its members, it could quickly boost the browsers' shares.

Opera Mini also has an edge that could play to Facebook's advantage: Apple refuses to allow third-party browsers not built atop Safari into the App Store.

But Opera Mini is already in the iOS App Store, managing that feat because it really isn't a browser, at least as Apple defines one. Rather than render HTML locally on the device, Opera Mini is essentially a proxy that shuttles page requests to Opera's own servers, which render the page, then aggressively compress it before sending it back to the device.

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